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The LA Rams: The dark side of how deals get done, what the Warriors should avoid

As you weigh the pros and cons of the Golden State Warriors’ upcoming move from Oakland to San Francisco, consider the Los Angeles Rams’ missteps a lesson in what professional sports franchises should avoid when changing cities.

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SF arena rendering

Bright Lights, Big City

Hollywood, LA: The place where Marilyn Monroes and Lana del Reys are made. Where people come to reinvent themselves, start over, pursue their wildest dreams.

This is how Hollywood presents itself to the world, at least.

And every time a small-town kid arrives in the city with high hopes of glitz and glamour – and actually “makes it” – the legend of Hollywood being a magical place, where dreams actually do come true, grows, metastasizes … leading another kid, from another small town, to hop a train, plane or automobile in pursuit of his or her dreams.

But it’s not only the kids that are conditioned to dream big, work hard and become … anything. The lure of bright lights and big city is often too big to resist and succumbing to this lure is not limited to the vulnerabilities of teen- and twenty-something- angst. At one time or another, everyone wants a fresh start. And this, perhaps, is what drove Rams owner Stan Kroenke to get the hell out of ordinary St. Louis as quickly as possible – for glitzier and more glamorous LA.

The only problem is that Stan Kroenke was not moving just himself and his family to LA. He was uprooting an entire NFL franchise: players, coaches, front office workers, etc. Of course, teams have medical staff they would likely bring along, too. But what about those on the lower end of the Rams’ payroll, like equipment handlers? On a five-figure salary, these employees would struggle in LA, where a two-bedroom apartment easily goes for $5,500 per month. And then there are those who can’t move, like the St. Louis stadium workers and owners of bars and restaurants around the stadium whose businesses undoubtedly will take a hit.

Kroenke’s decision didn’t just uproot the lives of those affiliated with the organization. He also leaves behind the issue of a very disgruntled city of St. Louis. By Kroenke’s assessment, the Rams needed to be moved because St. Louis is a “baseball town” with a struggling economy. But dismayed Missouri elected officials and local residents strongly disputed this view. Municipal meetings featured red-faced yelling, poster-board signs with messages scrawled in jagged handwriting, and desperate pleas for the team to stay.

None of it was enough.

Kroenke’s mind was made up. He, and the Rams, were headed for Hollywood!

Reality Bites

This would be a good time to tell Mr. Kroenke – a born-and-bred Missouri native – that platinum-blonde Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Baker, a brunette, and Lana Del Rey was born Elizabeth “Lizzy” Grant and literally went on to make herself, complete with a new name, a narrower nose, and fuller lips.

If Mr. Kroenke knows who Lana del Rey is, perhaps by now – after several months of living in LA – he has figured out that her remade name is derived from Del Rey, a small neighborhood on the Westside of LA. Del Rey’s greatest assets are a busy Starbucks, elementary school, police station and the burned-out shell of a once popular produce market.

So, as much as “Hollywood” represents dreams coming true, it’s also the land of illusion that, to outsiders, may appear enthralling. But those living in LA are familiar with the cheap materials and rudimentary construction that create the illusion, such as the blue neighborhood sign with white “Del Rey” lettering.

Kroenke has facelifted his organization, but can he manufacture success (i.e., wins) before local residents turn their backs on another NFL franchise?

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were rough for the Rams, with sellout crowds a rarity and blackouts of Rams games in the LA market occurring with greater frequency. The Raiders’ arrival in LA had split the LA fan base, leaving the Rams with no other choice but to get the hell out of dodge.

Stan Kroenke was just coming into the picture at this time, with an intended 30% ownership stake. But his interest in the team was contingent on its move to St. Louis, having deemed the NFL’s push (spearheaded by then-Commissioner Tagliabue) to keep LA a two-franchise city, along with the Raiders, a dismal failure. In 1994, 21 league owners voted against the Rams’ departure from LA, including then-Raiders owner, Al Davis … who also was trying to get out of LA.

But the Rams pressed on, and after two years of litigation, the franchise was settled in St. Louis for the start of the 1995 season. Between 1999 and 2005, the Rams made the playoffs five of six years and won Super Bowl XXXIV against the Tennessee Titans, bringing the Lombardi trophy home to St. Louis fans. By most accounts, this is a respectable record for a small-market NFL franchise.

But Kroenke wanted more ...

LA had rebounded from its struggles of the 1990s, and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get in on the action, league approved. But, in the last few years, LA has experienced a resurgence of some of the problems of the 1990s that contributed to the team’s original flight (see: “A Tale of Two Cities” below). If crime and homelessness continue to rise, leading LA back to Hell-A status, can Angelenos expect the Rams to stick around?

Also, the Rams may have beat out the Chargers and the Raiders for relocation to LA, but the Chargers get first dibs at joining the Rams in LA … with a Raiders relocation to Southern California still a possibility. If the Chargers or Raiders head for Hollywood, will the Rams stick around long enough to figure out how to survive a divided fan base?

The Rams started the 2016 season by being on the wrong side of a 28-0 beatdown by the 49ers. Missouri residents undoubtedly are rejoicing and spewing utterances about karma being a bitch. The St. Louis football fans are right to feel wronged by a Rams organization they likely consider to be disloyal or even fickle.

The Rams desperately wanted out of LA … fought tooth and nail to get back in … Maybe LA should consider all of this a red-flag warning.

Risky Business

And, so it goes in LA, where people are driven by desire and ability to do things rather than by need and consideration for how the things they are doing will affect others. In this case, LA – home to an abundance of professional sports organizations – did not need another team.

Citizens of St. Louis, emotionally and financially gutted by losing one of the two major-league teams they had, must be scratching their heads, asking: How many teams does any single city need? Why did the NFL sign off on this? Many Angelenos asked these same questions when Kroenke ram-rodded his way into LA like a home-invasion criminal, with the NFL providing the crowbar.

Yes, this probably sounds a bit melodramatic. But consider the way things went down:

[1] The Rams organization engaged in negotiations with the city of St. Louis that left fans feeling that Kroenke already had his mind made up before talks even began, and that any discussions were held for optics’ sake. The fans sued. But given that the Rams are now in LA, we know the outcome of that litigation.

[2] Kroenke and LA city officials colluded to get “lightning speed” approval of a new stadium in the up-and-coming Inglewood section of Los Angeles. They achieved this by subjecting the matter to a closed vote by the LA City Council rather than to the usual method of getting things done in LA – ballot initiative, which would have let voters decide.

Given that development and gentrification of Inglewood will likely cause housing prices to climb even higher, drive long-time residents out of their homes, and increase already- terrible traffic because of the would-be stadium’s proximity to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), many suspect LA residents would have voted “no” on such a ballot measure.

With billions of dollars at stake, the Rams made sure that pesky taxpaying Angelenos wouldn’t get the chance to derail their plans.

[3] The Rams are moving forward with their plans despite real issues of safety voiced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The FAA deemed the stadium site to be a “hazard to air navigation” because of its location between two runways, its potential to “interfere with radar that tracks inbound aircraft,” and the obvious: stadium lights that could obstruct the vision of pilots trying to land.

Meanwhile, former secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, considers the location of the stadium to be a unique security risk in a post-9/11 world, stating: “[W]e shouldn't be building stadiums in the direct flight path of one of the busiest airports in the world… [i]t is both disturbing and curious that there is such great interest in hyping the political discussion surrounding Inglewood to the distraction of safety and security concerns.”

Yes, this means the FAA is concerned about pilots crashing planes as a result of blinding stadium lights and the DHS fears the stadium’s close proximity to LAX makes it a prime target for a terrorist event.

[4] The pre-season did not pass without a Rams-related lawsuit. Former Councilman Dennis Zine has launched a suit against the City of LA and LA Police Chief Charlie Beck for what he calls an “illegal gift of public funds.” In other words, the LA Police Department – with apparently nothing better to do despite a significant uptick in violent crime in the city – assigned some 200 officers to work security for two Rams pre-season games at the team’s temporary home, the LA Memorial Coliseum, and the Rams had not reimbursed the city.

Zine, who estimates $2 million in police resources will be required for the Rams’ regular season games, stated: "I think it's inappropriate to give a gift to a billion-dollar corporation when they can pay the tab for security.”

It’s especially inappropriate to give such a gift to a billion-dollar sports franchise when so many LA residents are, at this very moment, searching for their next meal and looking for a spot to bed down for the night, and violent crime rates have increased dramatically the last few years.

But it looks like pressure from the Zine lawsuit, statements by the union representing LAPD officers (which first drew attention to the issue), and negative stories in the media had a positive effect. On Tuesday, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that Kroenke had worked out a deal to reimburse the city for the security LAPD officers provided during pre-season games, while negotiations over security of regular season games remains ongoing.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Los Angeles Police Protective League said: “Crime in Los Angeles is skyrocketing and we do not have the staffing to safely patrol our neighborhoods as it is. Neighborhood safety must be our priority above NFL games and other special events.”

LA Councilman Mitch O’Farrell stated: “I am grateful the Rams organization is responding fully to our concerns, and to the mayor for effectively securing this agreement to ensure that the LAPD can go back to focusing on our collective goal of reducing crime in Los Angeles.”

A Tale of Two Cities

LA features beautiful beaches, gorgeous mountains, 300 days of sunshine per year, and beautiful people! The city is, in many ways, the mecca of wealth displayed by the Kardashians. But it very much is a city of extremes, too: excess versus scarcity, luxury versus austerity. Well-heeled HENRYs, on a restaurant patio on Wilshire Boulevard in tony Santa Monica, gorge themselves on a chicken-and-waffles brunch. Meanwhile, two store fronts down, a man sleeps on the sidewalk without even a piece of cardboard or newspaper separating him from the concrete.

Whether due to willful ignorance or seeing spots and comet trails as a result of the bright lights of the city, an unadvertised reality exists in LA that, no doubt, is spurred by the greed of the wealthy. In this increasingly visible but often overlooked reality, homelessness has increased 11 percent within the last year, pushing the total number of people without adequate shelter to almost 50,000.

Meanwhile, the number of LA residents who have fallen out of apartments and homes and into the unstable environments of encampments, cars and makeshift shelters under overpasses increased 85 percent within the same span of time. While some are getting rich off of a housing bubble that won’t burst, where a studio apartment in gang-ridden South LA is now priced above $1,000 per month, others (citizens with jobs who pay taxes) are finding themselves calling tarp slung over sticks “home.”

This “second city” is often hidden by mainstream media, leaving those outside of the City of Angels unaware of this veritable crisis of homelessness. In addition, the soaring homelessness was not a point of discussion by city officials looking to lure the Rams (check), San Diego Chargers and 2020 Olympic Games, and it certainly was not a concern for Kroenke. With law enforcement, social services and charitable organizations at the limits of their resources to support citizens in need, city officials had a duty to the people who elected them to demonstrate how an NFL franchise could help to solve, rather than worsen, these issues.

That LA moved heaven and Earth to bring the Rams in, before coming up with measures to help the 50,000 people living on the streets or regulate the housing market to prevent additional people from falling into homelessness, shows just how screwed the city’s priorities can be. But if LA city officials were to work with Kroenke and the Rams to support charitable organizations working to house the homeless, perhaps the return of the Rams to LA will go over better with residents who, at present, remain skeptical. (Monday’s pathetic outing against the 49ers didn’t help.)

Warrior Road

To summarize, just so we’re clear (and, yes, there will be a quiz on this later):

  • The Rams left St. Louis under questionable circumstances;
  • Forced LA City Council to approve its move and plans to build a new stadium without subjecting either to voter approval;
  • Disregarded safety and security concerns issued by the FAA and DHS; and
  • Left taxpayers on the hook for the costs of securing the stadium during preseason games while simultaneously diverting law enforcement resources from the more pressing matter of keeping citizens safe.

A shrewd and shameless business move that compromises the safety and integrity of a city. This, boys and girls, is a lesson in what not to do when moving a professional sports franchise from one city to another.

The Warriors are moving only 15 driving miles away from Oracle Arena in Oakland to Chase Center in San Francisco. Still, the move has important socio-economic implications for Bay Area citizens and businesses as evidenced by the Rams.

Hopefully, Oakland and San Francisco city officials, the Warriors organization and the NBA have an ear to the pulse of these issues and will avoid the kind of destruction caused by the Rams’ move.

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